The UK’s data privacy watchdog is examining the use of voters’ personal data by analytics companies, to assess whether Britons’ data protection rights were breached during political campaigns such as the EU referendum.
The decision to conduct the review was spurred by concerns raised about the role of the data analytics company Cambridge Analytica, the US affiliate of British-based company SCL Group, during the EU referendum campaign, according to a spokesperson for the UK Information Commissioner’s Office.
The big data company, with offices in New York, Washington and London, gathers personal data on individuals from a variety of commercial and public sources, as well as quizzes and surveys, and builds detailed behavioural and personality profiles of individuals and their political leanings.
The company, which claims President Trump’s chief strategist Steve Bannon as a former board member, has worked on several political campaigns, including Mr Trump’s presidential bid, and has reportedly advised the Leave campaign in its successful bid to persuade the UK to vote to leave the EU.
The ICO spokesperson said: “We have concerns about Cambridge Analytica’s reported use of personal data and we are in contact with the organisation.
“We are also conducting a wider assessment of the data protection risks arising from the use of data analytics, including for political purposes, and will be contacting a range of organisations. We intend to publicise our findings later this year.”
The company said that “Cambridge Analytica did not do any paid or unpaid work for the Leave.eu campaign. In 2015 the company was in discussions to potentially work with them. That work did not go ahead”.
However, Andy Wigmore, the communications director of the Leave.eu campaign told the Financial Times he “confirmed” that Cambridge Analytica provided “initial help and guidance” to the Leave.eu campaign, which then went on to develop its own artificial intelligence analysis methodology.
“The AI machine learning was developed in Bristol by 20 mathematicians and actuaries with input from Cambridge Analytica at the very beginning and then executed by [US political consultancy] Goddard Gunster,” he said.
The Leave.eu campaign announced on November 20 2015 that it would be working with Cambridge Analytica, according to an internet archive: “Cambridge Analytica are world leaders in target voter messaging. They will be helping us map the British electorate and what they believe in, enabling us to better engage with voters. Cambridge Analytica’s psychographic methodology . . . is on another level of sophistication.” The web page itself has been deleted from the Leave.eu website.
Leave.eu’s data strategy, Mr Wigmore said, involved gathering public data from people’s social media profiles, such as “likes” on Leave.eu’s Facebook page, and then following all the likers and creating “mini-hubs” of supporters.
In the United States, companies are allowed to trade third-party data without consent, however EU data protection law does not allow this.
“If you want to process sensitive personal data about people’s political opinions in the EU, which is the core of what [Cambridge Analytica] seem to be doing, you have to have explicit consent,” said Gavin Millar QC, an expert in EU and information law. “If people didn’t know this was happening, it is unlawful.”
A spokesperson for Cambridge Analytica said that “We are in touch with the ICO, and are happy to demonstrate that we are completely compliant with UK and EU data law. We do not use data from Facebook. We do not have access to Facebook ‘likes’.”
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